It’s been a year since Brokeback Mountain was released. A year later we know how it was received and the tributes and controversy it collected. Warmly embraced by far more people than even the producers expected, castigated by mercifully few [bushy-eyed bigots], lauded with awards of every stripe but denied the Academy Award for Best Picture — a circumstance that led a gentle woman from Wyoming to mount her war horse and write one of the most [brutal takedowns] of Hollywood ever seen. A small movie about a love affair between two Wyoming ranch hands held the attention of the world for awhile. Now that the world has looked away, what remains of Jack and Ennis?
The first time I saw the movie, for days after, every time I thought about Ennis Del Mar I cried. Not because of the particular loss he experiences in the story, but because I had never seen the loneliness and aching sadness of a man — of men — so faithfully depicted on screen. The preternatural skill of Annie Proulx in writing the character and Heath Ledger in realizing him is still astonishing. In so many ways the film is a conversation between Proulx and Ledger about how men live. Seeing the film again last night, little of the initial impact was lost. This time though Jack came more clearly into focus. The first time around, caught in the incandescence of Ledger’s performance, Jake Gyllenhaal’s depiction of Jack Twist was thrown into shadow — a supporting character — but with this viewing the tragedy of Jack, a man without loving wife or children, who steals a few days of happiness on rare trips to the mountain, was clear. He is the truly tragic character who (probably) comes to a violent end because he cannot bear to live with the loneliness that Ennis has accepted as his cross.
And, this time, I was more aware of setting and the character of the spaces around the characters. Proulx turns the notion of the gay ghetto inside out by setting scenes of homosexual relationship in limitless pristine vistas. It is as if all God’s creation is complicit in their love; they must hide from society but find a home in nature. Ang Lee expands visually on this theme by placing the characters in small rooms and tight frames when living their “real lives” with wives and children. By contrast, when they are together in the mountains they are often placed in wide shots of astonishing beauty — space literally opens up for them and their story plays out on a stage of operatic grandeur. But it is not an untroubled or simple metaphor — beneficent nature versus cruel society. For Ennis, the mountain is a place where he can be the man he wants to be away from the judging eyes of others, but for Jack it is a recurring reminder of the terrible constraints on their lives. Society intrudes to taint the pristine wilderness. By the time of their last scene together, Jack’s anger is fueled by the recognition that they are held back as much by the internalized limits their relationship imposes as by any threat from outside. They each project onto the landscape what they each bring to it. For Ennis, refuge; for Jack, prison.
The film is remarkably consistent and true throughout. There is only one real mistake that Lee made and it’s unforgivable. In the critical scene of the boys’ first reunion after four years apart, Lee chose to cut away from Jack and Ennis to record Alma’s reaction to what she has seen. It’s unfair to the characters of Jack and Ennis to steal attention at that moment, it diminishes the impact of their embrace in their own story and actually diminishes the presumed sense of isolation for Alma by attending to her reaction. A conventional choice to wring drama from the hurt wife makes their reunion about her and jarringly shifts the focus of the story. It hurts every time I see it. The camera should have stayed on the boys, shooting over their shoulder at Alma appearing at the door then silently moving away, just as Proulx originally wrote it. But this is the only fault I can see.
While the end credits rolled last December 9th I said to a friend, “it’ll never be the first time I see it again.” An acknowledgment that a bomb can only be detonated once, though the report can echo long after. It will be interesting to gauge the effect of the story on people and their attitudes over time as it moves from being a phenomenon and takes its place in the vast canon of “classic” movies. At it’s debut much was made of the “explicit” lovemaking between the young men (mostly just prurient titillation over two straight actors making out), and I suppose there is significance in having people see what was previously unimaginable to them, but the novelty of boys kissing is sure to wear out over time. I think the more subtle and artful qualities of the story are what will have enduring impact.
Proulx’s commonplace characters — these boys are extraordinary in a love story because they are so ordinary — deftly neutralizes the distancing effects of stereotypes. Jack and Ennis look like anybody you would meet on the street in any small town. But for this story you might have no appreciation of the complexity, the potential, the vastness of such “ordinary” men. We are indebted to Annie Proulx’s imagination and the actors who brought it to life for providing all of us a wider space in which to be human.